Learning the lessons of a mature market

August 6, 1999

In the first of a series on education at the close of the 20th century, Brian Rix celebrates the return of lifelong learning.

When I left school at 17, my father, who was in the shipping business, wanted me to go up to Oxford, but I had other ideas. I wanted to act. Then the second world war intervened and, before joining the RAF, I became for a short while a professional actor with Sir Donald Wolfit.

After the war I started a theatrical company - the first phase of my lifelong learning. I found out how to manage people, run a theatrical show, weld a group of disparate actors together, deal with marketing and publicity, Equity contracts - everything. I even had to learn to type. It was all a bit hit and miss - quite a good way of learning new skills, but I would have appreciated the odd part-time course, perhaps, if there had been one, even an MBA in theatrical administration. As it was, for the next 30 years I was a good old-fashioned actor-manager in the good old-fashioned hands-on tradition.

Contrary to many people's belief, learning does not stop after school or graduation. "Lifelong learning" is not a new concept. What is new is the much greater profile being given to programmes being designed especially for people who want to return to some kind of formal learning, often at a much higher level than before.

Universities such as East London have always offered programmes for those designated "mature students"; now traditional universities are opening their doors to the older person who sees a real benefit in developing his or her skills and interests in a fairly formal setting. Enrolling on such a programme demands considerable commitment, but mature students display this to a quite extraordinary degree.

The whole profile of students in higher education is changing. Even the BBC's John Humphreys was astonished to be told on the Today programme by Frank Gould, vice-chancellor of East London, that more than half of today's undergraduate students are mature - that is over 25 years old. From their inception, colleges such as Birkbeck pioneered degree courses designed for mature students. A typical Birkbeck programme allows plenty of time for the well-organised to leave work a little early, travel to college, attend the lecture, and get home at a relatively civilised hour.

But, in another change, employers are beginning to like their staff to acquire more qualifications. They know the reward will be felt by the company, not just the individual who enrols on the course. Iain McAllister, managing director of Ford UK, has declared that soon you will have to be a graduate to sell cars in a motor showroom. Ford was one of the first employers to make a serious commitment to retraining its non-graduate staff to graduate level. Others have followed suit in a series of long-term programmes with a number of universities. Work-based learning is a new title for a programme studied within your place of work, often using problems encountered in your own job as the subject of course projects.

Mencap, with which I have worked for the past 40 years (in the past 20 years as chief executive, chairman, and now president), has been instrumental in supporting the development of another kind of lifelong learning: for students with a learning disability. A high proportion of these are mature students, but the real culture shift is in the acceptance that all students with special needs are not cut out from the learning process. It is imperative that if you can benefit from higher or further education, you should be able to access it comparatively easily. And it is not just the raffia-work-and-basket-making class either: it is horticulture, languages, mathematics, sports science and psychology, to identify only a few. We all pay lip service to basic education as a right for everyone; now we are making real progress in persuading people that lifelong learning is everyone's birthright too.

Next year UEL will sponsor a festival of lifelong learning, drawing in contributions from the community, schools, other universities and colleges, local organisations, industry and business. One of its aims, naturally enough, is to promote awareness of lifelong learning, and to influence national and international policy on the role higher education plays in it.

The government has made a significant pledge to encourage and support lifelong learning, and it is to be hoped that this will include better funding for part-time programmes in higher and further education. Student loans are another vexed issue: it is hard to get one unless you are a full-time student aged 54 or under. If we as a society are really committed to lifelong learning, we need to be prepared to lend money to anyone who is enrolled on an appropriate course. Retirement, too, seems to encourage many to become lifelong learners: they seize the chance to enrol for the degree they have always wanted or to study a subject in which they have an interest. Graduates in their seventies are regularly collecting degree certificates, and some then go on to masters degrees. Universities need to stop conceiving their programmes in terms of 18-year-old school-leavers and start acknowledging the enriching effect of the mature student in the seminar room. Oxford and Cambridge celebrated the maturity of the immediate postwar generation of students who had served in the armed forces, but the enormous potential of the mature learner is only now being rediscovered.

I have been actor, actor-manager, administrator and politician - as a member of the House of Lords - in my 75 years. I wonder what I will have time to learn next? Putting my feet up, I supposeI Baron Rix of Whitehall is chancellor of the University of East London and a member of the social affairs, Education and home affairs sub-committee of the House of Lords European communities committee.

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